Ueng: Back in the classroom at Harvard Business School

Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most. Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire.


RALEIGH – I just returned from my 30th Harvard Business School reunion. My visit kicked off with an energetic class taught by Professor of Leadership and Management, Amy Edmonson where she discussed her latest book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth.

This topic immediately caught my attention given my work as a leadership coach. Coincidentally, I had recently delivered a 360 review to a first time CEO. In my top three areas of improvement for her consideration, I had bulleted working on “creating psychological safety” for her team.

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Project Aristotle at Google – the quest to define the perfect team

Professor Edmonson’s research was leveraged in the recent extensive study by Google in its quest to build the perfect team and figure out why some stumbled and some soared.

Named Project Aristotle, this multi-year endeavor was led by Google’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers. They pored over half a century of academic studies as well as tons of data around the composition of the 180 teams they studied. Experts in analytics and finding definitive patterns, they had trouble finding a formula of what types of people to put together on a team in order to succeed.

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Psychological safety… That’s the ticket

Instead, they observed, two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared:

  • Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking
  • Average social sensitivity

What do these two attributes really mean?

With the first, at the end of each day, everyone had roughly the same amount. As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group dominated the conversation, the collective intelligence declined.

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Hitting the screen and airtime, sharks and turnouts

I found this very interesting, as I was petrified my first year at HBS. At the start of the year, we were divided into 8 sections of 90, and we spent all our time in our first year with these same 90 people. At the end of the year, within each section, 10% of us would earn first year honors, and 5% of us would “hit the screen” or “loop out” which means we would not be invited back to complete second year to earn our coveted HBS degree.

My section was known to have the most sharks, those constantly grabbing precious “air-time,” as we were graded largely on our class participation. At our 30th reunion, guess which section had the lowest turnout? Mine! In fact, our turnout was so low that our section party had to be combined with another section.

I gathered with my four section mates who made our section party and asked them why they thought our section was not particularly close as compared to the section we were paired with whose dozens of attendees were spending every possible minute together catching up on good times. One section mate who announced, and still seemed a bit bitter, that she had graduated just one course shy of making Baker Scholar (top 5% of our class), said she thought it was because we graduated more Baker Scholars than any other section. In addition to doing well on written exams, Baker Scholars have to speak frequently with high quality remarks in order to earn this highest distinction.

HBS sometimes creates a culture that encourages “shark” behavior, that inevitably makes some people have much more air time than others. I was largely unhappy and hugely stressed my first year as a result of this uneven air time, and I was not alone in this feeling. I think this contributed to our section being one of the least cohesive and therefore having the lowest turnout at our reunion.

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Social Sensitivity – caring for others, not focusing just on oneself

The #2 trait is that the high performing teams all had high “average social sensitivity.” They were skilled “at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.” They would know when someone was feeling upset or left out.

HBS’s Socratic method of teaching included cold calling to open. My sectionmates and I would all shudder in our boots when our Marketing Professor Fareena Sultan would walk into our classroom and then walk up and down the aisles eyeing various members of our section, and then in a quick pivot, turn around to surprise her unexpecting victim and ask them to open that day’s case. Suffice it to say, I was quite afraid at the start of every marketing class. I was not surprised to hear that after one section mate gave up in the middle of the Marketing exam and then dropped out of school, another section mate asked, “Will his grade count toward our curve?”

While I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned a great deal at Harvard, this reunion made me wonder how much more I would have benefitted if I had been assigned to a section that had supported each other and therefore grown close and remained so even after three families. One of my good friends, who was in the section ours merged with for the party, was the only student from China my year, as the country was just opening up. Since English was very much her second language, her section mates wrapped their arms around her and made sure she got proper airtime. Since she and I talk and visit outside of reunions, she told me at the section party, so I didn’t think she was ignoring me, “We can visit later!” I encouraged her, as I recognized how important the time with her cherished section mates was to her.

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Psychological safety creates happiness – everywhere

Traits #1 and #2 put together are aspects of what is known as “psychological safety” and Google discovered that this generates the best teams. Similarly, when these two behaviors prevail in first year Harvard Business School sections, the students go on to be lifelong friends who at reunions, pick up as if no time has passed.

In life, to be happy, we want to be seen and we want to be heard in the circles we travel from the classroom to the workplace. When both happen, this leads to the best performing teams at Google and I daresay, will also work for you.

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability To help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.

Grace’s core offerings are one on one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, facilitating workshops on Personal Branding, Happiness and Vulnerability, and Speaking Success, and strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TEDx speaker, she is hired to give keynotes on Happiness and Mental Wellness.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School and holds a positive coaching certification from the Whole Being Institute.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, a cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.

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